[Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post written by Jen Baldwin.]

When researching our family, social history can make a significant impact. Studying the community they lived in can provide a wealth of information, as well as clues and hints to further your own ancestors’ story. One of the common elements of American culture and community was the fraternal society.

Known by many different names, these organizations can provide a wealth of information. But how do you find them? If the headstone of your ancestor does not come equipped with a convenient and recognizable symbol, how can you find and identify the organizations in your area of interest? How do you know if the society of interest was fraternal, benevolent, auxiliary, friendly, a lodge or even a secret organization?

Know Your Resources

There are several opportunities to educate yourself on the societies in your area of interest. Start by creating a locality profilei, so you have the local resources handy. Include everything you can think of as you build this resource for yourself: cemeteries, libraries, archives, county and town government sources, societies and for this purpose especially, newspapers. Know if you have the option of utilizing online newspaper resources to identify these groups. Once you have that, you can go back to the location and identify the organizations that may still exist and be active.

Identifying the list of potential organizations is easier, once you have access to a newspaper from the era. It was very popular to include the organization events, changes in leadership, meeting times and more in the local paper. It was also common for neighboring lodges to assist with significant funerals, participate in sporting events or competitions, or select rituals or traditions for the lodge itself. These articles may just list a time and place, but they can also go into great detail on the event, who was involved, and some of the stories of the members.

Another excellent resource not to be overlooked when identifying lodges in your ancestor’s community is City Directories. Commonly listed under the category of “Labor Unions,” or similar, you can usually find them in the beginning pages, near the listings for federal officers or hospitals. Depending on the size of the directory, they also sometimes paid for advertising space there, so if reasonable, a page by page search can be helpful.

Lastly, try the local historical or genealogical society. If all else fails, they will at least have an idea of what buildings may have been constructed with fraternal influence, which section of the cemetery was delegated to a particular organization, or, if you’re lucky, they may have a full and complete list of all the lodges that existed in the town’s history. Note that the local library may have this information as well, such as the Saint Louis Public Library, who devotes two pages of their website to Fraternal and Benevolent Societies in the area (http://www.slpl.lib.mo.us/libsrc/frat1.htm).

Phase Two: Which One?

Now that you have a list, how do you know which organization to pursue? If you have meticulously scrutinized every scrap of evidence, examined the headstone and obituary for clues, and found nothing of interest… well, you simply have to keep looking. This becomes a process of elimination. Filter your way through the list, using what you already know about your target individual as a starting point. Was he a machinist in Detroit? Start with the unions and work your way backwards in time. Did he live in the mountains of Colorado? Chances are good he was at least on the membership rolls of the Woodmen of the World, even if he wasn’t an active member. Remember that the numbers of participating adults, in the United States alone, was rather staggering. According to one source, there were 60 million individuals in some kind of fraternal order in the U.S. in 1927; and more than 800 different fraternal associations to choose from, not including professional, social and self-help.iii Chances are good; you had at least one ancestor involved in some capacity.

The next step is to move on to something tangible, something you can use right now, today: your phone book. (Or rather, the phone book for the area you are researching.) In the yellow pages, you just may find a number for the existing lodges in the area. Call all of them and ask your questions; you may get farther in one phone call than you would in six months of email.

Certainly not to be overlooked is the question of ethnicity. Organizations formed for cultural and ethnical preservation were vital to an immigrant’s transition to life in America. Not only did they develop in areas of heavy concentration, but they also promoted the area as a good place to settle for those just arriving. Seek out not only the actual organizations, but museums, archives and historic churches in the same population or centered on the same ethnicity. At some point, they will start to reveal the information they have collected on societies.

Persistence is Key

The real secret to this avenue of research is persistence. Remember that not all of these organizations are thriving today; in order to reach someone who may have access to historic records, you have to keep trying. Also, because these are privately held records, you also have to understand that you may not get them this year. Sometimes it requires a change in leadership, and therefore a change in ideology about how the society should function, before public access is allowed. Be realistic, but also be smart, witty, patient and respectful. The stories told in these records can be well worth the wait.

i D. Joshua Taylor, MA, MLS. “Borders and Boundaries: Creating Locality Profiles for Research.” Presentation. NGS 2013 Family History Conference, Building New Bridges Syllabus, Las Vegas, Nevada; 9 May 2013.
ii Unknown, “Lodge Directory,” Aspen Democrat, 20 Jul 1901, online archives (http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org/ : accessed 28 Oct 2013), page 4.
iii Joe M. Sanchez. “1.3 Social, Cultural and Political Change,” The Masonic Trowel, online (http://www.themasonictrowel.com/Articles/General/craft_files/fraternal_associations_orders_and_freemasonry.htm : accessed 20 Oct 2013), 2001-2012.

Jen Baldwin is the owner of Ancestral Journeys, specializing in the Rocky Mountain Corridor. She writes for a variety of publications, speaks regionally on genealogy related topics, is the creator and co-host of #genchat on Twitter, and owns Conference Keeper; a website designed to compile all genealogy related events around the world. She also is co-creator and Co-Chair of the NextGen Genealogy Network. Locally, Jen is active in the historical and preservation community in Summit County, Colorado; acting as the lead researcher, social media manager and tour guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. In addition to following her passion for genealogy and history, Jen and her family are avid outdoor enthusiasts, spending their winter’s snowboarding and their summer’s hiking, and exploring abandon mining camps in the beautiful mountains of Colorado.


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